DelDOT responds to BFCC's center lane request

The Bethany-Fenwick Area Chamber of Commerce recently asked state officials to consider significant design modifications for an improved Route 26, just as that project began rolling ever so imperceptibly forward.

Delaware Department of Transportation (DelDOT) Secretary Nathan Hayward defended the existing design in a Jan. 6 response.

The planning process, which included a traffic needs analysis and public involvement …” has been completed and consensus reached on the improvements as proposed,” Hayward wrote. “Beginning this process again could set back the project by several years.”

Hayward prefaced these comments with a timeline, which described DelDOT’s failures to reach consensus with the locals, despite repeated attempts, throughout the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s.

When DelDOT officials came back in 1998, people were ready for them. The writing on the wall had become a public announcement system fully turned up.

Already, actual construction on the “SR 26 Mainline” project, running from the Assawoman Canal westward to Clarksville, won’t begin until 2008. That’s 10 years in planning, historical and archaeological surveys, design, public workshops, redesign and rights-of-way acquisition.

According to DelDOT’s Rob McCleary, the work should be complete by 2010.

To recap, 10 years in preparation (from the time people were finally ready to accept the work was needed), then two-plus years in construction — try to implement any major changes and that will tack on another few years (and untold costs).

Considering the low level of service on Route 26 (rated E in some spots — one grade above total gridlock), further delay might seem unthinkable.

However, according to the chamber’s Karen McGrath (also a member of the SR 26 Advisory Committee), while nearly everything else has changed in formerly sleepy eastern Sussex, DelDOT’s designs have not, and are now unacceptable.

McGrath noted the impending arrival of more than 7,000 new homes, already approved, and all the cars that will come with them.

“What DelDOT has proposed, after all these years of study, is basically an upgraded two-lane road,” McGrath pointed out.

DelDOT engineer Rob McCleary said the department had suggested a more “robust” facility — like a divided, four-lane highway — in the past.”

However, the upgraded two-lane road had been the design the public went for, and that was the design DelDOT had taken around to the public workshops, addressing comments and quantifying impacts.

McCleary said going through that process again would be a big step backward.

McGrath said DelDOT officials were already behind schedule on the “Local Roads” project, and hadn’t finished sending out letters to property owners who would be impacted by that work.

She said “Local Roads” notification and land acquisition had to take place before “Mainline SR 26” acquisitions begin.

Therefore, since people along Route 26 haven’t received letters (informing them they will be impacted) either, DelDOT officials have hardly reached the point where they would have to backtrack and renegotiate, she said.

She admitted a continuous center lane would require more land acquisition, but not as much as DelDOT was suggesting.

McGrath said no one was thinking of taking away the 5-foot bike lane/shoulders. “We just want to get rid of the grassy knoll, which is expendable,” she said. “Nobody wants it anyway.” (She was referring to a 3-foot grassy median between the shoulder and the sidewalk, on either side of the road.)

McCleary insisted that space was essential for putting in utilities, like fire hydrants, but McGrath strongly disagreed.

“We all know fire hydrants can be set in concrete,” she said. Also, as McGrath pointed out, any repairs or future utility installations would probably involve cutting concrete anyway — 3 feet wouldn’t give workers enough space to dig.

Eliminating the medians would give DelDOT engineers 6 feet toward the center lane — they would need to acquire another 6 feet.

“Yes, it will take more time and money to acquire that land, but if that means it’s a better, safer road in the long term, it’s worth it,” McGrath concluded.

She said the chamber’s Steve Wode (public policy) had crunched the numbers, and determined DelDOT’s presentation was overly pessimistic.

DelDOT suggested they would have to acquire another 2.9 acres of land — Wode said, even in a worst-case scenario, they would only need 1.25 acres.